The option for the poor

By Joe Drexler-Dreis

The Centre for Liberation Theologies offered a course this year on the option for the poor. We questioned how the concept of the option for the poor can formulate a theological response to a contemporary context shaped by hierarchies based on economic, social, and political power. At the conclusion of the course, I can see three inter-related points that we developed.

First, there is a need to develop a method that can elucidate the historicity of the Christian understanding of salvation. This implies a need for both structural analyses and ways to understand everyday realities. These ways of analyzing historical reality impact the understanding of God. This question of social analysis or mediations for theology has received renewed interest over the last decade by theologians such as Ivan Petrella and Ada-María Isasi-Díaz.

This already leads me to the second point: social analyses, and the social practices these imply, have theological implications. There is a functional relationship between inductive and deductive ways of thinking when engaging the option for the poor as a discourse about God. The option for the poor is a fundamentally theo-centric option. God’s self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth, as among and for the oppressed, is fundamental to who God is. This represents a deductive principle, yet this deductive principle demands a parallel inductive principle. In turning to “the poor” in our immediate situations, we can better understand who God is.

This brings me to the third point, on which I’d like to dwell a bit. If “the poor” is a fundamental theological category, as the previous two points indicate, how we understand the poor is crucial to a theological understanding of reality. Many descriptions of “the poor” describe poverty in terms of a lack or deprivation. In many important ways, poverty is a lack, and it’s important to acknowledge this: poverty cannot be defined without reference to the concrete lack of material resources. But in my contributions to the course, I put forward the thesis that the option for the poor disallows this notion of a lack to extend to the epistemological level: the oppressed do not lack the capacity to make sense of reality in an adequate way. If the actions by and relationships among the materially poor are seen as outside rationality, or as not making a legitimate claim towards universality, then the option for the poor, as the ground of a Christian theological discourse on the divine, is sacrificed. In other words: the option for the poor demands that the epistemologies and cosmologies that emerge from the materially poor have the capacity to make sense of the divine reality.

This is where decolonial theory can be helpful to theology. Walter Mignolo, one of the preeminent decolonial theorists, is critical of liberation theologies:

While there is a history of theology obviously linked to imperial designs and interests, the papacy being an obvious example, there are theologies of liberation in South America, North America, and Africa, as well as a Jewish theology of liberation. My claim is that, as in the disputes between (neo)liberalism and (neo)Marxism, both sides of the coin belong to the same bank: the disputes are entrenched within the same rules of the game, where the contenders defend different positions but do not question the terms of the conversation.”[1]

Even though (neo)Marxism represents a leftist critique of (neo)liberalism, both are Euro-centered discourses: both develop in reference to European realities and in dialogue with an (almost) exclusively European intellectual tradition. Analogously, for Mignolo, liberation theologies, like traditional theologies, develop in reference to European intellectual traditions despite their leftist (although not exclusively Marxist) tendencies. (Although, and this is what he misses, not in reference to European realities.)

To do liberation theology from the decolonial perspective that Mignolo is pushing for would require seeing the role of Christianity within Western expansion from the perspective of the experience of colonization. It requires thinking out of the memory of the exploitation that allowed for Western modernity (i.e., colonization and the slave trade), and the hope for the obliteration of these exploitative processes. This means engaging thought systems that emerge from the sites of exploitation by Western modernity, not merely as claims for justice that need to be recuperated within the Western tradition, but as intellectual claims.

Such a perspective is in contrast to a perspective of (Western) modernity, which assumes the normativity of the hegemonic epistemological position articulated within Western Europe. For Mignolo, what characterizes modernity is its Euro-centrism. Theologies that critique Western modernity by finding a better European tradition thus remain, for Mignolo, in a perspective of modernity. Within theology, we see this in a return to pre-modern sources (i.e., radical orthodoxy) or a postmodern turn in order to offer an internal critique of modernity. These two turns are both attempts to maintain the centrality of European discourse. Even as turns away from Europe—to the way the victims of Western modernity have responded to its oppressive features—would make more sense, both these trajectories cling to a need to maintain the epistemic normativity of the Western tradition.

The decolonial perspective that Mignolo finds lacking in liberation theology isn’t only an issue of diversifying knowledge, or adding race or gender analysis (although it is also this). Fundamentally, a decolonial perspective is significant because it suspends the de facto authority of Western thought systems over all other ways of making sense of the world and human relationships. Within this suspension, decolonial theorists turn towards the ways those outside the benefits of Western modernity have made sense of the world. This is crucial for the option for the poor. The option for the poor implies doing theology—that is, thinking the divine reality—from a decolonial perspective. Because of who Christians hold God to reveal Godself to be (deductive principle), Christian theology requires thinking within trans-modern epistemologies (inductive principle).


[1] Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, 92.